RJ Eagar has come a long way from delivering mattresses on bicycles in the 1950s. In 75 years, the family-owned company has become an interior specialist business serving thousands of families, companies and schools, from beyond their trade doors in Stratford and New Plymouth. This year’s 75-year milestone is one they are proud of. And so they should be.
It was 1946 when Roy Eagar became a cabinet maker and furniture polisher. He’d just returned from the war and began applying his craft in the furniture business. It wasn’t long before he and wife Eileen, or Googie as she was more commonly known, opened their first workshop on Broadway South in Stratford and began building not only furniture, but the foundations of a successful family business. This also included the acquisition of a funeral business in the mid-1950s.
Their son, Michael Eagar, who is now managing director of RJ Eagar along with his nephew, Leon, says it’s hard to believe that 75 years has passed.
“It’s quite remarkable to think that what Mum and Dad started from humble beginnings all those years ago, has grown to where we are now.
“What they created, we have been able to enjoy with our own families, and also those who have worked with us and become part of the wider RJ Eagar family story. I am really proud of it, I’ll be honest about that.”
In 1954, Roy and Googie opened their first shop in Stratford on the site it still stands today. It was from this store that Roy was said to be seen delivering mattresses to his customers via bicycle along the streets of the Taranaki township. Perhaps a testament to the commitment and customer service that has always helped the business thrive.
Sons David and John joined the business after finishing their schooling, while Michael went on to do a carpentry apprenticeship. It wasn’t long before the family business came calling, however, albeit in a different way.
“I helped to build the first New Plymouth store with my employers at the time, the Jeffares Brothers. After we finished the building, about 1975, I joined the family business,” says Michael.
And it’s there he has remained as a key figure developing, innovating and pushing the business forward, originally alongside brothers David and John (who took over the funeral business with his family in 2000). More recently, David’s son, Leon, has taken over the operations in Stratford.
Wife, Kathy, is an integral part of the business too, recently clocking up 31 years as the store’s interiors buyer and adviser, showroom curator, and window treatment specialist. As she nears retirement, Kathy fears she’ll be booking a cruise ticket for one, such is Michael’s continued enthusiasm for the business.
“You can ask him about retirement, but you might not get an answer,” she laughs.
Michael says he loves everything about what he does; the staff, the challenges, the adrenaline, and working alongside his wife.
“It’s just an everyday thing in my life that’s great,” he says. “The fact that Kathy works here too makes life enjoyable because we’ve got a common interest and we’re working towards the same goals.”
Part of his passion lies in witnessing the business’ growth. While the New Plymouth store’s footprint is more than four times the size of what it was when Michael began, including the opening of La-Z-Boy Gallery store next door in 2014, the Stratford showroom had its own revamp in 2009. The team also opened a second hand store in Stratford on the corner of Broadway and Regan St – a property already owned by the family.
The second hand store adds value to the business and is an opportunity for people to sell their furniture to downsize, upgrade, or on behalf of family members. There’s plenty of treasures to be found in-store for vintage furniture enthusiasts, too.
“It’s amazing how many people visit looking for quirky things. It’s quite interesting.”
Michael has recently purchased the car yard next door to the New Plymouth store, with plans for further expansion, or an opportunity for new businesses to set up in Fitzroy.
“That might be for the next generation. Leon and Matthew (Kathy and Michael’s son who works in the flooring side of the business) might be able to do something with that, who knows, but it’s there, ready to go.”
While the highlights are kept front of mind for the Eagar family, the business has also endured its fair share of challenges. There have been peaks and troughs in trade, including Covid-19 which understandably brought uncertainty. While business was abysmal during the pandemic, their post-Covid trade was something quite remarkable.
Michael had the foresight to anticipate supply chain issues and made sure he ordered plenty of stock so there was product to sell. At one point, they had La-Z-Boys and furniture stacked to the roof.
“We feel very lucky that we happened to be in the right industry after that,” says Kathy.
Since Michael joined the business 43 years ago, he’s seen the industry evolve a great deal. It’s moved from family-owned businesses, to bigger, national franchises.
Kathy says RJ Eagar has a different focus to those businesses, with a goal to stock their showroom with both imported and New Zealand-made quality furnishings that appeal to a wide range of ages and stages.
“We were always thought of as being very traditional, and I guess Fitzroy was quite a traditional, retired person’s area back in the earlier days. But there’s such a different vibe to the area now and we’re getting a really diverse clientele.
“We’re enjoying bringing quality pieces into our store that will suit a more modern home, as well as providing some of those traditional pieces for those going into retirement homes, or downsizing. We understand everyone’s needs and budgets are different, so we aim to create a range that will have something for everyone.”
While keeping their product range relevant and fresh in-store, the addition of an e-commerce platform has also made RJ Eagar accessible to the national market. While those two factors have brought a lot of positive growth in recent times, Michael says the development of their domestic and commercial flooring service has been huge.
“Every one of our flooring team are trained to industry standard, as well as our RJ Eagar standard, through our BCITO apprentice programme.
“We have four flooring apprentices, and as soon as one qualifies, we’ll bring on another one. They’re a very important part of our industry and if we don’t provide the training, then we simply won’t have them.”
Office Manager, Karen Macdonald, says investing in their 24 staff is as important to Michael, Kathy and Leon, as investing in the nuts and bolts of the business. It’s a values system that also translates to the customers.
“Our point of difference in the marketplace is our customer care, and that’s why we have so many customers who continually return to RJ Eagar to purchase.
“The fact we also have so many long-serving staff members is a true indication that the Eagars genuinely care about people and want to do the very best for them.”
Having been part of the team for almost nine years, Karen is full of praise for the way the business has “moved with the times”. The open-minded attitude is a big part of why the 75-year-old business has continued to thrive over the years.
“Michael is always listening and watching, and he’s open to ideas and feedback. The beauty of a small business is that we can quickly try ideas and embrace that change.”
The most positive change in her time at the store has been the investment in technology and marketing.
“Customers shop with their ‘fingers’ more than their ‘feet’ nowadays and are well researched before they even step into our showrooms. We have invested a lot of time and resources into social media and our e-commerce website and I think this has helped to encourage a younger demographic into our stores.”
In-store is where the magic really happens, though. RJ Eagar’s experienced consultants have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to flooring options, blinds and drapes selection, fabrics for upholstery, furniture styles and settings, and even giftware.
“Many of our team have been here for 20 years or more, so there’s a lot of valuable knowledge to guide customers through a process to find the right product or solution.”
Having knowledge is one thing, but having a true passion for what you do is another. Over the past 75 years, it’s passion that has powered this third generation business into what it is today. A simple statement Michael lives by may also have something to do with it.
“Treat everybody the way you would like to be treated,” he says. “It’s simple, but it’s the secret.”